Spaceport, New Mexico. (January 17, 2024): It is one of the most spectacular demonstrations of aerial skill and daring in the world. In this photo by Staff Sergeant Breanna Klemm, the United States Air Force Air Demonstration Team “Thunderbirds” conduct winter training in preparation for another season entertaining audiences. The Thunderbirds were formed in 1953, just six years after the U.S. Air Force became its own branch of service, and they are the third-oldest formal flying aerobatic team in the world. Today’s Thunderbirds are assigned to the Air Force’s 57th Wing based at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada.
The squadron's name is taken from the legendary creature that appears in the mythologies of several indigenous North American cultures. The Thunderbird, according to the Algonquian people’s mythology, rules the upper world while the Great Horned Serpent governs the underworld. The Thunderbird controls this ancient demon by firing thunderbolts to prevent it from overrunning the earth and devouring mankind. To these early American Indian tribes, the Thunderbird was literally a messenger from the Great Sun himself.
To become a Thunderbird, a pilot must undergo a rigorous selection process and must be nominated by at least two active Thunderbirds. Candidates must be experienced fighter pilots with a minimum of 750 hours in a fighter aircraft and must have demonstrated superior flying skills during their time in operational units. All candidates must have at least 3 years (but no more than 12 years) of military service and can expect to join the team for two years.
These pilots fly the modified F-16C fighter whose 20mm cannons have been replaced with a smoke generating system and the fuselage is painted with its famous red, white, and blue glossy motif. These planes are taken from the current Air Force inventory and can be easily remodified and ready for active service.
The squadron performs approximately seventy-five demonstrations a year to more than three hundred million people in all fifty states and fifty-eight foreign countries. The Thunderbirds are America’s aerial ambassadors and represent the best of the Air Force’s traditional values of bravery and dedication to excellence.